A candidate trying to decide between graduate schools recently asked me which

“types of public administration, political, or civic problems you are attempting to provide solutions to with your research?  For example, which questions are you tackling right now?”

Of course, right now I’m grading. But in a slightly more general sense of “right now,” I’d say that I’m interested in these questions:

  1. Does the bureaucratization of public policy sap its legitimacy? What can be done to preserve administrative institutions’ efficiency and egalitarianism while rendering them responsive to citizen concerns? How important are concerns about ‘psuedo-consultation’ or top down mobilizations that create the appearance of legitimacy while squelching dissent?
  2. What is the source of legitimacy, in general? Is it consensus? Fair procedures? Just policies? Citizen participation?
  3. How should we think of the relationship between global poverty and domestic politics? What role does inequality play within a polity? What role does it play in international relations? What can be done to reduce the intense suffering associated with global poverty? Are some strategies self-defeating?
  4. Which is more important: having one’s needs met, or having unhindered access to the political process? When they’re equally important, is it acceptable to forgo the meeting of some needs for the least advantaged in order to bolster political accountability to the middle class?
  5. Can participatory democracy (either activist or deliberativist varieties) adequately plan for, and respond to, risks and hazards? If constitutional essentials are regularly at risk, are we obligated to rely on experts to properly manage such risks?
  6. What problems typically face transitional democracies? What kinds of lessons can established democracies learn from these newly minted republics?
  7. What role does pluralism play in bolstering (or weakening) civic engagement?
  8. How should we think about the relationship between market-oriented solutions and institutional solutions? Can the market’s tendency to exacerbate inequality (both economic and political) be resolved adequately with the use of transfer payments and guaranteed services?
  9. I’m hoping to start working more on policing and punishment. One aspect of that interest has to do with the question of testimonial privilege and the culture of deception in police departments. The other aspect is related to the hidden costs of over-incarceration and the status of Pell Grants for prisoners.
  10. Do Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum supply a solution to conflicting accounts of political justice in their accounts of entitlement and capabilities?

This list is hardly exhaustive, but it captures many of my concerns. Because of the nature of the request, these questions are primarily in public policy. There’s a related set of questions in philosophy proper having to do with things like identity and authenticity, the relationship between one and many, the metaphysics of personhood and freedom, the distinction between rights and privileges, and the difference between what evolutionary psychogists and x-phi types call ‘moral intuitions’ and the traditional use of intuition in epistemology.

This is not to mention various authorial questions in the history of philosophy, primarily related to Hannah Arendt and the Frankfurt School, Plato and Aristotle, Plotinus and Augustine, and the classic “M” civic republicans: Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Madison, and Marx. What’s striking, however, is how often those questions now seem to be subsidiary to the general policy and normative questions, rather than primary as they did when I first began to pursue philosophy.

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